Some games make you laugh, some make you rage, and some even make you downright ball your eyes out. Spike Chunsoft, the developers behind the Zero Escape series, are experts at making you do all three and sometimes all at the same time. However, Spike’s latest creation, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, specialises in the comedy department. Originally released in 2010, visual novel fans (like myself) have been waiting patiently for Danganronpa to make it to the West. Now that it is finally here, it is safe to say it was slightly worth the long wait. Going in initially, I expected more of the same old thriller yet totally depressing story about 15 high school students trapped and forced to murder by their psychotic principal. However, I was very mistaken.
While that is the premise of the story, Danganronpa takes a tone that is definitely unheard of in Spike’s other games, like the Zero Escape series. Here, you’ll find a dark comedic twist on the well-known and exceedingly popular Survival Game genre. You play as Makoto Naegi, your typical high school student just trying to get by. That is, until he receives a letter stating he has been accepted into Hope’s Peak Academy, a school populated by the world’s Ultimate Students. Makoto becomes the only ‘normal’ person to attend the school, guaranteed to be successful in life. That is, if he can survive. He soon wakes up trapped by his psychotic teddy bear principal and the only way he can escape is to kill one of his classmates and not get caught.
While the story starts out quite strong, it quickly sinks into the background as the characters take centre stage. The tone itself will be hit or miss with a lot of gamers, especially those that were expecting something more on the serious side. Even the blood of the deceased is pink for some unknown reason. Speaking of which, the gameplay revolves around examining crime scenes, finding clues, building relationships with the other participants, and presenting evidence in class trials. The game is very much a mix between the Zero Escape and Ace Attorney series. However, the gameplay is very lacking. Controls during exploration can be awkward and slow, Quick Time Events during class trials are a nuisance and wonky as can be, and there aren’t many decisions to make compared to other visual novels.
Despite the gameplay being a major letdown, the characters are truly where Danganronpa shines. Beginning with an overwhelmingly large cast, the story quickly dwindles it down to a handful that are focused on for most of the game. Even the most bland characters (of which there are quite a few) turn into irreplaceable, well-rounded students by the end of the title. Your typical anime stereotypes are all here, but the character development is fleshed out perfectly, reminding us of the terrific writing Spike Chunsoft is so known for. Unfortunately, that pedigree doesn’t translate well to the overall plot. Scattered, incomplete, and predictable, the story is lacking compared to other Spike games. The only thing that’s unpredictable was who was going to die next. Even the murderer could be figured out long before the rest of the group realises what’s going on. I would progress nearly two hours into the story before anyone realised that one of the clues obviously gave away who did it and whilst the game does end slightly unsatisfactorily, it never took itself seriously enough for me to honestly be disappointed.
That isn’t to mean that Danganronpa isn’t a game worth checking out. Gamers with an open mind, willing to try something maybe a lot different than what they typically play will find this a game worth your time. Unfortunately, that time isn’t nearly as long as most RPG’s or even other visual novels. The main story can completed in roughly 25 hours, much less if you don’t partake in the optional conversations with the other students. There is no reason to play the game ever again, as there is only one ending and the story isn’t worth experiencing another time. There is an optional school mode unlocked after completing the game, in which you experience a deathless, even more lighthearted version of the main game. However, the mode isn’t substantial enough to play through, unless you absolutely loved the story and gameplay.
Overall, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is worth a purchase if you are looking for a dark comedy consisting of well-written characters and unique art-style. Featuring a mix between 2D and 3D pop-up book-like graphics, Danganronpa will please visual novel and murder mystery fans alike. Not nearly as serious as Spike’s other series, Danganronpa is also a wonderful starting point in the visual novel genre. Just don’t expect the gameplay to be fun or the story to be that complex.
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